We sat down with EF senior academic David Bish to find out more about blended learning and how it’s used in the classroom.
David, how would you introduce blended learning?
At its core, blended learning is a teaching technique that combines traditional teacher-fronted classroom time with use of technology. Blended learning can sound like a student smoothie! There’s a lot of educational science behind the different learning “blends” and the 21st-century learner needs to know how to choose their personal taste.
But there’s always technology involved?
Yes, whatever the blend, there’s always some amount of technology in the mix: a schools’ computer, your own laptop, tablet, or your smartphone. In setting up a course we decide how much online time there will be alongside the classroom learning and where we want the technology to be.
Is there a, let’s say, “classic” blended learning technique?
Yes, there is. Classic blended learning is a way to increase the amount of focused learning time by using the school’s computer lab to complete practice exercises. Many American colleges count time spent on computers – both in and outside class – as “contact” time. This focused time is great for grammar, listening, and reading skills, and is an important component in the students’ study diet. (Remember the smoothie!)
What other techniques are there?
There’s also the flipped classroom. Flipped lessons have been set up by the teacher so that online reading or listening time at home feeds into the classroom lesson. The “flip” is that students do the homework before class. This is just right for students who want to feel prepared and comfortable about the content of the lesson to come. Flipped language learning typically uses videos (like watching a great TED talk and then discussing the ideas back in class) to build students’ vocabulary and encourage active participation in the topic.
I’ve also heard of the “hybrid class”…
In a hybrid class, the teacher will spend some time on computer-based activities using a system designed to complement the course material. In many schools, this means enriching the class with multimedia work on an interactive whiteboard that brings presentations to life and helps explain difficult ideas with animation and interaction. Most course books come with learning content and practice material the teacher can have students use for small group or individual practice, with in-class support from the teacher.
Can students use their own devices in class?
Of course. This is called the BYOD or Bring Your Own Device where students use their own smartphones or tablets in class, but the teacher organizes their learning. In this case, the school doesn’t provide computer labs or interactive whiteboards. Here students get the comfort of using their own device – like a tablet for making a group video or phone for taking part in an online quiz. This suits students who are more comfortable using technology they know well and want to be able to try out activities again after class to review work.
Do apps and mobile content count as part of a blended learning “diet”?
They absolutely can. With a technique like Mobile Language Learning (or MALL), the focus is all on the student. They carry everything necessary in their pockets to power their learning anytime, anywhere. Done well, good mobile learning is like the snacks in between meals in a student’s learning diet. Learning apps such as EF’s “Words” keep students engaged with regular, short practice. Applied Linguistics Research tells us that vocabulary and pronunciation can be improved particularly well with regular, focused mobile phone use.
Can teachers mix and match these techniques?
With practice and at a well-equipped school, it’s possible. With microblending, students are in the hands of an expert teacher who realizes the benefits of different types of blended learning working in a well-equipped school. The teacher blends the technology to be sure students get a varied diet of all of the types of learning mentioned above; depending on the topic students are studying, their language level, and the type of group they’re working with. The teacher will let students make choices about the best way to work on a particular part of their course; so the blend will vary both from lesson to lesson and within lessons, giving students the best learning possible.
How can teachers choose what blend suits them best?
It’s a question of personal preference to enhance your existing teaching style. Teachers can consider whether they like the dependable, steady structure of the classic blend, or if they’d prefer to go for a more adventurous flipped classroom. Perhaps they’d like to see what variety of learning the microblending class can create for their students. But never forget your students’ learning preferences: as a teacher, you have to consider what fits most appropriately in your institution, as well as your students’ preferred learning styles.